5th Sunday of Easter (Year C)
First Reading: Acts 14:21-27 Second Reading: Revelation 21:1-5a Gospel Reading: John 13:31-33a, 34-35
“A NEW COMMANDMENT I GIVE TO YOU – 'LOVE ONE ANOTHER AS I HAVE LOVED YOU.'”
One day, as Blessed Mother Teresa and her Missionaries of Charity Sisters were tending to the poorest of the poor on the streets of Kolkata, they happened to pass across a man lying in the gutter, very near death. He was filthy, dressed in little more than a rag and flies swarmed around his body. Immediately, Mother Teresa embraced him, spoke to him softly and began to pick out the maggots that were nesting in his flesh. A passerby was repulsed by the sight of the man and exclaimed to Mother Teresa, “I wouldn’t do that for a million dollars.” Her response was immediate, “Neither would I!”
Obviously, monetary gain did not motivate the diminutive woman known as 'The Saint of Kolkata'; love did. In her writings, Mother Teresa frequently quoted Jesus' new commandment, and affirmed the motivating power of love. She often used to say, 'We must grow in love, and to do this we must go on loving, and loving, and giving, and giving, until it hurts - the way Jesus did.'
We are in the Easter season and today is its 5th Sunday. The season of Easter reminds us of the Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus and it is a celebration of 'new life,' which has come to us through our Risen Lord. What do we mean by this 'new life?' Have we experienced this 'new life' this Easter or, for that matter, in any previous Easter? Or does the Easter experience simply pass by and nothing happens?
Our Scripture Readings for today are a mixed group, but each reflects the Easter message of 'new life.' All three of them inevitably speak about 'newness,' and at the same time stand on a firm common ground and build blocks over it, ever raising it tall. The Gospel Reading speaks of a new commandment of love, which is the foundation and heart of Jesus' teaching and his message. The First Reading speaks of new converts and new communities formed and founded by the Apostles, here on earth, on Jesus' new commandment of love. And the Second Reading speaks about a new heaven & a new earth and a new Jerusalem, after our life here on earth, which is the attic apartment and the culmination of Jesus' new commandment of love. Let us consider each of them:
The New Commandment...
Our Gospel text today is oddly a look backward. It is taken from St. John’s version of the Last Supper and for obvious reasons, it deserves first consideration. Today's Gospel passage actually follows the presumed Last Supper meal, then the example of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples (including those of Judas), continuing with the lesson in theological reflection on that example of service, then Judas’ departure from the assembly, and finally the bestowal of the 'new commandment.'
Jesus has washed the feet of his foot-weary table companions, and has thus provided an example of what it means to love. What he has done for them, they are to do for one another. In other words, no form of service is too menial for a Christian disciple, and privileged exemption from service of others has no place in gospel living.
Judas' departure sets the scene for Jesus' last Discourse. Events have been set in train that will culminate in God’s victory over evil and death. The die is cast; there is no going back now. Jesus' 'hour' has come. Jesus begins by speaking about his 'glorification,' i.e., his passion, death and resurrection. He says, "The Son of man is glorified and God is glorified in him." The Son of Man is glorified both in his willingness to obey God even unto death and in the fact that God will glorify him by making his sacrifice effective for the salvation of all. By pouring out his life for us, Jesus not only saves us, but also gives us a perfect example of what love is.
However, this is not the end of the disciples' association with Jesus. He will surely leave them very soon, but they are to continue on the way of discipleship. In today’s Gospel passage Jesus says to them, “I give you a new commandment: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.” This is an example-based and reciprocal love commandment and this is Jesus' legacy to his disciples; and this is Jesus’ legacy to us too.
So, what is 'new' about Jesus' commandment? In order to glean the radical quality of Christ’s 'new' command, we must be able to grasp the true depth of his love:
The Hebrew Testament tells us 'to love God with our whole heart and soul and so on; and to love our neighbors as ourselves.' Jesus has added a new element in telling us that the true test of discipleship is to love other people in the same way “as” he has loved us. Here, Jesus himself has given the measure of his love for his disciples which includes us too. This is really to love without measure as he had shown it on the cross when he gave his life for our redemption - which is sacrificing and self emptying love. And we might remember that this event speaks of the greatest possible love that a person can show; i.e. by letting go of one’s very life for others. Also, this kind of love is not selective. Neither does it depend on love received. He offers it freely to everyone. His is an all embracing, universal love.
Actually, there is an enormous significance in the fact that Jesus called his 'a new commandment.' The mandate is part of the new covenant, and new economy of salvation and represents a departure from the old covenant which confined love to one’s neighbor; i.e. to another Israelite, or to resident aliens. Jesus’ new commandment calls for an unconditional love - without limits, qualifications or prerequisites.
Finally, Jesus also says to them, “This is how all will know that you are my disciples: if you have love for one another.” Love is not only the mark or characterization of Christian discipleship, it is also its primary task. In accordance with the 'new' testament of Jesus, as he was about to offer his life-giving sacrifice on the cross, Christians must live out the call to fraternal charity. This is the sign of the Christian in the world, the irrefutable, immediately verifiable proof of Christian identity.
The Newly-formed Communities...
In the First Reading of today, we continue to hear from the Acts of the Apostles, which describes the early Church and its activities in the years following the Resurrection of Jesus. Today's text is an account of the completion of the 'first missionary voyage' of the Apostles Paul and Barnabas in the Mediterranean area, mandated by the Church of Syrian Antioch. They are now retracing their steps back home. Along the way, they pay a pastoral visit to Churches that they had founded and formed. There is a 'newness' in the newly-formed communities in the early Church:
Firstly, we see that the new commandment of love was at work in the heart of Paul and Barnabas as they were willing to be persecuted for the sake of the Gospel. Having already experienced sufferings and rejection, the Apostles tell the Christians that suffering is part and parcel of their lives. They urge them to shine in a service of love in the Lord Jesus. Their mutual love included encouraging the new converts, and setting up a structure of 'elders' as leaders to direct the believers in the early Church and to ensure continuity with the faith. With prayer and fasting, they entrust them to the Lord in whom they had come to believe. This description of the early Christian community will be repeated in the Acts of the Apostles, “See how they love one another.” Loving one another is the hallmark of Christianity.
Secondly, we see the inclusion of the Gentiles in the early Church. The Apostles started preaching the Gospel to the Jews first, in their synagogues. But then Gentiles too started accepting the word of God and believing in Jesus and his message. The evangelist Luke summed up what happened through the entire ministry of Paul and Barnabas on this first evangelizing tour—“all that God had done with them”—in the following terms, “God had opened a door of faith for the Gentiles.” Christianity is fundamentally an inclusive faith for everyone. And here in Acts the inclusive circle gets bigger and bigger, going from the Jews to the Gentiles.
A New Heaven and a New Earth...., The New Jerusalem...
The Second Reading of today from the Book of Revelation is one that is very familiar to many of us because it is often read at funerals. In this John presents us with a vision of the end times, indicated in a new heaven and a new earth when all the enemies of God will be destroyed. It is the glorious arrival of the long awaited “salvation and the power and the Kingdom of our God and the authority of His Messiah.” The old order will pass away and the sea (the place of chaos and evil) will be no more.
In this new order, God is imaged as one living in the midst of his people - loving them and they loving him. The reading says, “The home of God is among mortals.” We hear those beautiful words which are reminiscent of God’s promises to the Israelite people during the time of Abraham and Moses - “I will dwell with them and they will be my people and I will dwell with them always as their God.” Also, the New Jerusalem is imaged as the Bride of the Risen Christ, which is the Church. The presence of the bride groom, Risen Jesus himself, is a sign of joy. God promises that he will make all things new in Jesus and all the old will be taken away.
Again, we have the verses that help us to get through the sorrow of death. Once we have passed on from this life and we have entered the Heavenly Kingdom of God, we will have become immortal. God promises he will wipe away every tear, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, and all things will be made new. Instead, they will only experience glory, happiness and peace. We know that this has already happened through the death and resurrection of Jesus – that kingdom has been established and everything has been made new, and we await now for the completion of that event.
Perhaps the key that best unlocks the symbolism of this particular vision is the divine proclamation, “Behold, I make all things new!” This promised newness reprized the prophecy of Isaiah, “Remember not the events of the past, the things of long ago consider not; see I am doing something new!” For Isaiah’s contemporaries, 'something new' meant a return home, geographically to Judah after the exile in Babylon and spiritually to God. Memories of past sorrows would soon fade before the shining joy of a new beginning. For John’s contemporaries, 'something new' meant an end to persecution and the beginning of a new and glorious life, which is the culmination of the 'new love commandment' of Jesus.
Today Jesus also says to us, “A NEW COMMANDMENT I GIVE TO YOU – 'LOVE ONE ANOTHER AS I HAVE LOVED YOU.'” The challenge of this teaching is enormous. Do we carry this central teaching into our lives? Do we give support to our fellow disciples and share our faith and our love with as many people as possible? It is through this constant love-centered interaction among each other that the 'new earth, the new heaven and the new Jerusalem' can begin to come into existence – not at some unknown future time and in some other place but here and now. Today. It is in our hands. All we have to do is follow the lead of Jesus the Lord, who is our perfect example.
To conclude: There is a story about a man who had a huge boulder in his front yard. He grew weary of this big, unattractive stone in the center of his lawn. He decided to take advantage of it and turn it into an object of art. He went to work on it with hammer and chisel, and chipped away at the huge boulder until it became a beautiful stone elephant. When he was finished it was gorgeous. It was breath-taking.
A neighbor asked, "How did you ever carve such a marvelous likeness of an elephant?"
The man answered, "I just chipped away everything that didn't look like an elephant!"
Let us then today if we have anything in our life right now that doesn't look like love, with the help of God, chip it away! If we have anything in our life that doesn't look like compassion, mercy, or empathy, then, with the help of God, let us chip it away! If we have hatred, prejudice, vengeance, or envy in our heart, for God's sake, for the sake of others, and for our sake, let us get rid of it! Let God chip everything out of our lives that doesn't look like love. And this is the Good News of today.